Sick House Syndrome: 3 Strategies for a home that may be making you sickJun 21, 2017
Angela Cummings, pictured above, contacted me several months ago because my work really resonated with her. Curious as to why, I invited Angela to share her personal story with toxic exposures. Turns out, her home was making her and her son sick. Read her guest post below because most building materials can challenge our health. It's known as 'sick building syndrome,' or, in Angela's case, 'sick house syndrome.'
By Angela Cummings
Studies show that our health is affected by the choices we make, and that WE are in control of our health. Does that mean we can avoid illnesses like cancer, MS, asthma, and chronic disease? And does that mean that once you have an illness it can be reversed by your actions? I had the opportunity to test that theory in my own life.
In 2000, six months after my son was born we moved into a 5-year old house. The two of us had been healthy with the occasional winter cold and typical throat-itching nose-dripping seasonal allergies that could be easily cleared up by popping allergy meds. Within a few month of moving into our new house, our “allergies” got worse. Much worse. I’m a little bit of a data nerd so I threw together a few fast facts about my health:
- Over 8 years (2000-2009), 5 of my doctors and 6 of my son’s doctors could not diagnose the cause of illness.
- During those 8 years, sinus and ear infections were present 46 weeks out of the year - 88% of the time.
- An allergy to over-the-counter antibiotics developed, leaving me with 1 over-the-counter antibiotic to take.
- Between 2008 and 2009 three medical doctors from 3 different health care organizations told me to “figure this out” and that they were out of ideas.
I was left to my own devices to do just that - figure it out. After pouring over 4 inches of medical records and analyzing its contents, I could see the pattern of infection rise and fall when we were living outside of our house for a period of time. The cause became clear. Our new home was causing life-changing medical issues.
Rip out the carpet, test the air quality, replace the insulation with spray foam – do whatever it takes to stay in this house! This was my M.O. (method of operation), until I had drained our savings account. Our lifestyle, my son’s childhood home, and our close-knit neighborhood friendships would come to an end. I sold our house and we moved back home with my parents. Feeling like a child myself, I returned to the home where I grew up with my son in tow. It was a temporary solution for the larger problem. What the heck was going on with our health and how in the world would I fix it? By employing three strategies, I hoped to find out how I could change our health by making different choices. I discovered my answer sitting on an ottoman.
“Within a few month of moving into our new house [above], our “allergies” got worse. Much worse... These toxic chemicals were harming the vast majority of people – and they didn’t even know it.“ --Angela Cummings
Strategy 1: Listen to your body.
One Saturday afternoon I was sitting at the computer on my newly purchased ottoman typing away, not feeling well. My glands were swelling and I had brain fog. In a bit of a daze, I grabbed a snack and glass of water from the kitchen downstairs; I must have been hungry. When I returned to the computer 20 minutes later I felt refreshed and my symptoms were gone. Alright, back to work, I told myself. It happened again. Swollen glands and foggy focus took over my ability to work. Odd, I thought. So I took another trip to the kitchen, this time for an hour. But the same thing happened upon my return. Curious to understand what was causing my symptoms, I created my own little experiment and started eliminating variables that might have been causing the problem. I changed the easiest variable I could - I removed the ottoman from the room and sat on an old 1976 chair that my mom used for sewing. My gland swelling went down immediately and my focus started coming back. Huh.
I flipped over the ottoman and read the tag. When I say read, I mean tried to read. There were two ingredients that I could not pronounce and had no idea what they were. Thank God for Google. It turned out that the fancy “p” names meant vinyl and foam. I wished I had 12 hands to type that day, as I furiously Googled every phrase related to vinyl, foam, and illness. I read every website I could find, following links that took me to pages of information. Jack pot. A large majority of everyday products were made with chemicals that were harming people’s health. At the top of the list were vinyl and foam. And new building materials, such as the materials present in our 5-year old home.
These toxic chemicals were harming the vast majority of people – and they didn’t even know it. They were affecting major organ systems. They were creating illnesses such as cancer, autism, and multiple sclerosis. They were damaging our bodies at a cellular level. Water, food, clothing, shoes, soaps, lotions, toothpaste, building materials, paints, dishes, toys, furniture, bedding – nearly every single product in our lives contained chemicals that were harmful to people. Holy s**t (pardon my French)! It was jaw-dropping.
As it turned out, I had just scratched the surface. This jackpot came with a bonus. My search led me to understand the health condition that 11 doctors had not. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is an illness that causes individuals to react to even small chemical exposures, causing symptoms that range from unpleasant to temporary to permanently disabling.
My brain swirled with questions flying a billion miles per hour. Where in the world do I start making changes? How do I know what these products are? How do I protect myself and my son from these products?
It was overwhelming. Shut down, sit in shock overwhelming. Fortunately for me, I was raised to persevere even under the crushing feeling of hopelessness.
Strategy 2: Surround yourself with people and organizations that live life with fewer chemicals.
I read every book, website and credible study I could get my hands on. The great Dr. William Rae was one of the largest influencers of my understanding of MCS. Dr. Rae, founder of the Environmental Health Center, was one of the first to discover and understand MCS as a true physical medical condition. His work with MCS patients included testing new building materials and tracking patient reactions while in a controlled environment. Rae’s website linked to books such as Less Toxic Alternatives by Carol Gorman and offered consultation sessions with Environmental Health Center staff. These resources were fundamental in helping me wrap my mind around healthy building. Since housing was one of the key elements of my life that was needed, I decided to start there.
To build or remodel, remodel or build. It was such a tough decision, with pros and cons of each equalizing. I decided to investigate both. I searched for a builder that understood that “green” was about what’s good for the environment and “healthy” was about what’s good for people’s health… and that the two were not the same thing. After interviewing three builders, the fourth seemed to be a good fit. They had heard of MCS. They understood there was a difference between healthy and green. And they gave me the confidence to proceed. Equally as important, they connected me to the Green Design Center who supplied healthier and greener building materials. Things had begun to turn around as I started connecting with people that supported my goals of living life with fewer chemicals. As one conversation led to another, I started asking for what I needed. And I needed to find a doctor that understood MCS. It was suggested that I contact Dr. Glenn Toth, a family practice doctor with a M.D. in Environmental Medicine that had seen hundreds of people with MCS. Finally. By the grace of God, I had found my way to a doctor that could help me understand MCS even better than I already had. Doctor number 12 was a winner.
As I sat across the exam room from Dr. Toth, my first 1 ½ hour visit concluded with these words of diagnosis and advice:
Your immune system is at a tipping point, and once it tips over the edge it is very difficult to get it back. You’d need to receive special treatment from Dr. Rae who runs the Environmental Health Center in Texas or [another health care provider whose name I don’t remember] in New Jersey. It would take weeks if not months to recover. Most people that are sitting in your seat come to see me when they are so sick that they lose everything – they are so sick that they aren’t able to work. They lose their car, their house, their husbands and wives, and withdraw from family and friends. You are here at a good time – before your immune system tips over the edge. But you need to do something right now. A big lifestyle change. Or you will be at serious risk of losing everything. It’s your choice.
Strategy 3: Commit to reinventing yourself to become a healthier, happier version of you.
As the sole parent of a young child, I took his words seriously. The impact on our lives and my son’s well-being would be too great if I didn’t listen to his advice. And so I changed. Everything. Our food, home, clothing, bedding, furniture, cookware, gadgets, soaps, lotions, cleaning supplies and appliances to being products that had few-to-no harmful chemicals in them. I bought a home and remodeled using building materials with few-to-no harmful chemicals in them. We ate organic food. Wore clothing with less synthetic fabrics, dyes, and finishes. Traded toxic cookware for ceramic. I changed our lifestyle in a big way - all while working full time, starting a business, and raising my son.
It can be done, but the real question is did it really help? Was the time and effort worth it? Was my illness reversed by making healthier lifestyle choices? I felt like it had, but feelings are one bit of qualitative data. So I wanted to look at the quantitative facts.
Over the past 8 years, I have had 3 sinus infections lasting a week accounting for .007% of the time. (Double-O-Seven (007), kick butt, is a great way to describe that small percentage.)
In the past 3 years, I have not had one sinus infection. No antibiotics. No magic medicines.
Within 3 weeks of moving into our healthy home, my annual physical results showed a significant improvement.
Our change in lifestyle had indeed, affected my health – this time in a positive way. Minimizing the number of chemicals in our home environment, food supply, and everyday products gave me the ability to continue to work, be an active parent, and provide a home for my son. While MCS is not reversible, I was able to prevent it from getting worse. And prevent our life from spiraling down a path of difficult return. I am thankful for the good fortune of being diagnosed with MCS when I was, and the opportunity to learn firsthand that lifestyle choices do matter.
You can learn more about Angela Cummings at OccupantWellness.com
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